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College Quarterly
Winter 2013 - Volume 16 Number 1
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
Jonathan Sperber
New York: W. W. Norton, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I do not (believe me) hold Jesus Christ accountable for the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts, the Holocaust or the Westboro Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. Likewise, I do not blame Karl Marx for Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong or Pol Pot. I don’t even hold Nietzsche responsible for Adolf Hitler (though I’m not so sure about his sister).

As a matter of fact, if we examine them seriously, the followers of Jesus had a lot in common with Herr Marx. For instance, if we read The Acts of the Apostles 4:34-35, we learn that “neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

Fast forward about 1800 years and we read Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Program (1875) testifying more concisely than his predessors. He says: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Karl Marx may be accused of many things, but the only charge that really sticks is this: plagiarism!

Over the decades, I have read countless accounts of Marx’s life and work: a few hagiographies, a few more vilifications and some excellent interpretations, emendations and applications. In case any representative of the authorities is screening this little journal, I can say without qualification that I am not now, have never been, and am unlikely to become a Marxist or a Communist (which is generally believed to be more or less the same thing). At the same time, I find it both astonishing and lamentable that there are philosophers, historians, social scientists, politicians, academics, intellectuals and who ply their trade in the written or spoken word but who have not at some time grappled with his legacy.

The Marxian traditions (and there are more than can be properly counted) are rich sources of analysis and understanding, no matter what one’s formal discipline. It is therefore alarming to hear otherwise intelligent people sneer in derision, claiming that his work and the mindful labours of those who followed him—György Lukàcs and Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, Edward Thompson and Terry Eagleton, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas to pick almost randomly only eight of the lowest hanging fruit—are now somehow obsolete, irrelevant and have been both intellectually and practically defeated by neoliberal triumphalism fronted by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Make no mistake: Sperber’s main aim is not to rehabilitate or restore Marx to a central place in our political and economic conversations. He is quite content to inter Marx in a place where he can be as cheerfully overlooked as John of Salisbury or Giambattista Vico—mighty men of law and letters in their times, but of little more than antiquarian interest today. Sperber wants to contextualize and, thereby, to bury Karl Marx in the nineteenth-century ground which he trod with such passion and political commitment.

By rooting Marx in the well-defined past and refusing to see him “through the lens” of the twenty-first century, Sperber makes sure that we pay attention to Marx “as he actually was” and not as he might continue to be. If the careful, meticulous (some say “magisterial”) portrait that he draws is accepted, it will be not, as John Gray so delicately put it, be Marx alone who has been transcended, but rather “many of the disputes that raged around his legacy in the past century [that] will seem unprofitable, even irrelevant” (Gray, 2013, p. 38). We will not care whether a metaphysical link can be made to connect Marx to Lenin and to Stalin and to the stolid figures who oversaw the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

In a hefty 648 pages, Sperber does not tell us much that is new or that, at least, we had not suspected. His contribution is to have supplied more detail in one publication than others who have taken on the task of revealing Marx to posterity. He plainly set out to write the “authoritative” biography and critical consensus suggests he has succeeded.

What emerges? Well, Sperber informs us that Marx’s vision of capitalism was limited by the fact that he lived before the profusion of electricity, the automobile, heavier-than-air flight, personal computers and weapons of mass destruction (real or imagined). He also lets us know that Marx had no blueprint for the new society that would be built on the ruins of capitalism (although Sperber somewhat hedges and also claims that Marx believed deeply in a series of equally ill-defined utopias). By my lights, Marx was neither a utopian nor an unreconstructed economic determinist. But I thought we already knew that as well.

Sperber also roots out some of the less ennobling episodes in Marx’s personal and political life. A poor money manager, a persistent drain on the resources of friends and family, a chronic procrastinator and an unfaithful spouse, he was also quick to judge his rivals and opponents harshly and sometimes even unfairly. He was not immune to conspiracy theories where there may not have been solid evidence that people were out to get him. In telling these entertaining tales, as well as stories of poignant family tragedies, Sperber is to be credited with providing some fascinating particulars and interjecting some sound insights into the quarrels that divided radical immigrants from the European continent to the relative freedom of the United Kingdom following the revolts of 1848 and after. But, although we may not have been intimate with the gossip, we generally knew that too.

Other tangents and trajectories are pursued. Spreber, for instance, seems almost gleeful in disclosing that Marx was not a preternatural communist and, in fact, wrote some spirited articles that sound odd in their apparent defence of bourgeois values. Marx is even caught claiming that communist ideals would sap the productive energies of entrepreneurs. Indeed, there was no doubt that Marx flip-flopped on a number of topics—whether from expediency or because of a careful reassessment of the issues is a matter for future scholars to determine (and, yes, there will be future Marxian scholars in abundance).

None of this, however, is especially remarkable. Marx’s ideas evolved, but they were at no time shaped into a coherent and consistent system. In fact, part of the allure of Marxism is that there really is no “Marxism,” or at least no uncontested Marxism. So, there arise and linger for indeterminate times sectarian accounts and competitions in which various groups—some libertarian, others authoritarian; some humanistic, others materialistic; some orthodox, others ecumenical; some reductionist and positivistic, others still in thrall to an inverted Hegel even after all these years—claim to represent the real Karl Marx, though none ever do. Sperber’s version of events is meritorious, but its guiding purpose remains in plain sight and encroaches ever so slightly on the historical reportage.

Sperber’s biography has nonetheless won rapid and deep support. He writes very well. He peppers his prose with lively language and venerable vignettes. He humanizes Marx in a way that few non-Marxists and fewer anti-Marxists have succeeded in doing—without excessive rancor or unnecessary contempt. John Gray (2013, p. 40), summing Marx up for a decidedly liberal audience, says that Marx’s hopes for a better world were the result of “an incoherent mishmash of idealist philosophy, dubious evolutionary speculation, and a positivist view of history.” Methinks he doth affirm too much.

In fact, it is Sperber who seems so intent on laying Marx finally to rest and sealing him away in mid-Victorian England that he misses important connections. For example, while writing supportively of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Shiela Rowbotham acknowledges that she “smiled at Sperber’s throwaway comment that feminists have not embraced Marx. In fact,” she correctly replies, “Marx has had a profound effect on socialist feminism in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and even North America over the past few decades. We read Marx critically but took much from him. Many of us also placed him in a historical context, finding out how he had influenced women’s movements for emancipation globally, as well as how he failed to assimilate insights existing within the maligned utopian strands of socialism of his own times” (Rowbotham, 2013.

As my old teacher Dorothy Smith (1977) was quick to point out a century after his death, Karl Marx provides “a place to begin, a way to go.” This is not the same as saying that he offers a practical map to the future or a clear description of a destination. Regardless of what people say, Marx was open to new evidence and reluctant to affirm any truth as other than provisional. In the end, of all the attacks on his insights and ideas, Sperber’s project may best be described as the most recent and comparatively decent attempt to paint a portrait that can be hung in a back room of a museum (not necessarily the British,) where it will be available for viewing by the most eager, but situated off the main public paths. It is among the most effective available tactics: instead of proclaiming that capitalism has not (quite) collapsed (yet) and that therefore Marx’s predictions were fundamentally flawed, or yelping that Marx was the inspiration for twentieth-century totalitarianism, Sperber gives the man (almost) his due, recognizes the influence he had on his times, accords him proper respect as a singularity among singularities and then dumps him off in an alcove reserved mainly for the inexplicably curious.

It was a brave try, but it will not do. Every form of postmarxist thinking to date has merely been a species of premarxist thinking. This is not to say that Marx must be given the last word, but rather that no one aspiring to speak credibly about the future of what passes for our civilization can do so without incorporating or at least responding to significant parts of Marx’s thought, and especially without displaying Marx’s critical energy. It would, in short, be possible to jettison every specific observation and to acknowledge every failed prophecy and yet be left with an attitude of mind that would give us a place to begin and a way to go that are not the whole story, but that provide essential elements of it and that are simply unavailable elsewhere.

If nothing else, we can ponder a brief comment by the late Christopher Hitchens (1988, p. 242): “Socialism was an idea before Marx. Democracy was an idea before Marx. Social revolution was an idea before Marx. What he argued was that you can’t have any of the above until you are ready for them and that you can’t have one without the others.” We, of course, have amply demonstrated that we are not ready. No one else has been either.

So, to allow Marx (1845) a final comment, and one that is of importance to teachers: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.”


Gray, J. (2013, May 9). The Real Karl Marx. New York Review of Books, pp. 38-40.

Hitchens, C. (1988). Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports. New York: Hill and Wang.

Marx, K. (1845). Theses on Feuerback. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from

Rowbothan, S. (2013, April 25. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. The Times Education. Retrieved May 2, 2013 from

Smith, D. (1977). Feminism and Marxism: A Place To Begin and A Way To Go. Vancouver: New Start Books.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at